rules of thumb

heartburn, and the digestion of feedback

Question: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.

You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding:

Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed;

Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this.

Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start revising? You show it to a wider range of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*  You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing:

You have a good eye for detail.

I liked the way you built tension around the police interview.

There’s a certain raymond carver feel to this, were you reading him while you wrote?

On the way out the door a woman who writes obituaries for the paper says: I really liked the scene with the dog.

So you put the story away for a month, and then you take it out and read it again. You remember the rule of thumb: if one person makes a specific criticism, take note but don’t do any editing. If two people dislike the same scene, make another note. Three people have exactly the same problem with your story? Get out your pencil.

You come to the conclusion that the bit about the dog is good. In fact, it’s the only thing that works at all. So you delete everything but the scene about the dog, and start from there.

This cycle could repeat itself a hundred, a thousand times. At some point you have to trust your own instincts and send the story out to magazines and journals. That process may go on for years, too, and mostly you’ll get photocopied no thanks letters, but every once in a while you’ll get something encouraging and insightful. For example: The story about your uncle’s dog was funny and moving, and I liked it very much. But it’s not right for us here at Mechanics Today.

So you got a little stamp happy, sending the manuscript out. It was worth it for this note. And you’ve learned something: only submit to places that like the kind of story you’ve written.

I once went to a reading by Charlie Baxter at the Shaman Drug bookstore in Ann Arbor. I haven’t been in touch with Charlie for a long time, but at that juncture we were acquaintances, I guess you’d say. So I went up to talk to him before the reading and he was standing there with a copy of his just-published short stories in his hand, and he was making changes. In ink. I was shocked. Um, I said… um, now? Right now?

And he said: it’s always right now.

So people reading along silently as he read aloud were stymied now and then. I saw one of them check the edition and printing information, but of course nobody would interrupt a reading to ask if he really meant small? because on the printed page it said asked. Nobody put this question to him, because it was his story. His story, his call. However. The only writer I know of who actually revised a lot of stories and then published them again is Louise Erdrich. It was an odd move, and much discussed at the time.

So how do you know if you’ve gone over the top, or if the story is any good, or if the scene works? You want to know when you are done. Here’s the answer. Some clever writer (does anyone know who?) put it in plain words:

It’s all a draft until you die.

Uncle Peter’s Eloquence

Rather than get into a long essay on erroneous use of terms for language (the temptation is great, but I will resist), I will simply state an observation: it’s never a good idea to try to convey variation in spoken language in terms of spelling. The best (and maybe the only) way to make this clear is by example. Take a look at this exchange from Gone with the Wind. In this scene, there is an elderly black man named Peter, a slave, and he’s upset with Scarlett.

“Dey talked in front of me lak Ah wuz a mule an’ couldn’ unnerstan’ dem—lak Ah wuz a Affikun an’ din’ know whut dey wuz talkin’ ’bout,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “An’ dey call me a nigger an’ Ah ain’ never been call a nigger by no w’ite folks, an’ dey call me a ole pet an’ say dat niggers ain’ ter be trus’ed! Me not ter be trus’ed! Why, w’en de ole Cunnel wuz dyin he say ter me, ‘You, Peter! You look affer mah chillun. Te’k keer of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ‘ cause she ain’ got no mo’ sense dan a hoppergrass.’ An’ Ah done tek keer of her good all dese yars.”

“Nobody but the Angel Gabriel could have done better,” said Scarlett soothingly. “We just couldn’t have lived without you.”

You’ll note that the author attempts to portray Peter’s speech by playing with spelling. The idea being, I suppose, that he doesn’t speak English as it is written (something nobody does, by the way, unless you happen to be having a conversation with the ghost of somebody who lived in the 15th century). The author feels it is important to make the distinction between Peter’s speech and Scarlett’s…. why? Because he’s a slave, and she’s a free white woman of means? Because he is uneducated and she is … a little more educated? Let’s approach this differently, by rewriting the passage:

“They talked in front of me like I was a mule and couldn’t understand them — like I was an African and didn’t know what they was talking about,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “And they call me a nigger and I ain’t never been call a nigger by no white folks, and they call me a old pet and say that niggers ain’t to be trusted! Me not to be trusted! Why, when the old Colonel was dying he say to me, ‘You Peter! You look after my children. Take care of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ’cause she ain’t got no more sense than a hoppergrass.’ And I done take care of her good all these years.”

“Nobody but the Angel Gabriel cudda done bettah” said Scarlett soothingly. “We jus’ couldn’t have lived without you.”

I haven’t changed the dialog one bit — I’ve only changed the spelling. In Peter’s case all the grammatical points of his speech are maintained, such as the invariant use of third person singular verb forms (‘he say’). The distinctive lexical items remain, too (hoppergrass) and the syntax (”I ain’t never been call’). If it’s important to portray his speech, then this passage does it by means of lexical, grammatical and syntactic variations without resorting to spelling. Uncle Peter’s eloquence is still there.

I’ve done to Scarlett’s dialog what the author did to Peter’s — I changed the spelling to approximate how she would have pronounced the words. The result? It’s amusing and condescending — the misspellings seem to indicate something about her intelligence, or her illiteracy.

Mitchell uses spelling this way repeatedly. Some examples:

“Me, I am dead to shame,” grinned Rene. “Who would be respectable? All of my days I was respectable until ze war set me free lak ze darkies. Nevaire again must I be deegneefied and full of ennui. Free lak ze bird! I lak my pie wagon. I lak my mule. I lak ze dear Yankees who so kindly buy ze pie of Madame Belle Mere. No, my Scarlett, I must be ze King of ze Pies. Eet ees my destiny! Lak Napoleon, I follow my star.” He flourished his whip dramatically.


“Look, Ash,” said Will slowly. “I ain’t aimin’ to have nobody say nothin’ against Suellen, no matter what they think. You leave it to me. When you’ve finished with the readin’ and the prayin’ and you say: ‘If anyone would like to say a few words,’ you look right at me, so I can speak first.”


The lesson here is simple: don’t play with spelling unless you have a really good reason. Playing with spelling will almost always work as a trivialization of the character, and that’s never something you want. If it’s important to portray dialect, do that in other ways.

To be clear, this is not the only thing wrong with the novel. Oh no. I’ve considered the novel in more detail elsewhere, and brought down the anger of the masses on my head, so right now I’ll just point you to this post by Justine Larbalestier.  which covers the basic issues, both about the movie, and about reactions to the movie.

Examples of well done dialect representation

Annie Proulx. The Shipping News

“Ah,” said Yark. “I ‘as a one or two to finish up, y’know,” pointing to wooden skeletons and half-planked sides. “Says I might ‘elp Nige Fearn wid ‘is long-liner this winter. But if I gets out in the woods, you know, and finds the timber, it’ll go along. Something by spring, see, by the time the ice goes. If I goes in the woods and finds the right sticks you know, spruce, var. See, you must find good uns, your stem, you wants to bring it down with a bit of a ‘ollow to it, sternpost and your knee, and deadwoods a course, and breast’ook. You has to get the right ones. Your timbers, you know. There’s some around ‘ere steams ’em. I wouldn’t set down in a steam timber boat. Weak.”


Tone Cade Bambara. “My Man Bovanne”

“Yeh, well never mind,” says Joe Lee. “The point is Mama well, it’s pride. You embarrass yourself and us too dancin like that.”

“I wasn’t shame.” Then nobody say nuthin. Them standin there in they pretty clothes with drinks in they hands and gangin up on me, and me in the third-degree chair and nary a olive to my name. Felt just like the police got hold to me.

“First of all,” Task say, holdin up his hand and tickin off the offenses, “the dress. Now that dress is too short, Mama, and too low-cut for a woman your age. And Tamu’s going to make a speech tonight to kick off the campaign and will be introducin you and expecting you to organize the council of elders—”

“Me? Didn nobody ask me nuthin. You mean Nisi? She change her name?”

“Well, Norton was supposed to tell you about it. Nisi wants to introduce you and then encourage the older folks to form a Council of the Elders to act as an advisory—”

“And you going to be standing there with your boobs out and that wig on your head and that hem up to your ass. And people’ll say, ‘Ain’t that the homy bitch that was grindin with the blind dude?”


Laurence Yep. Dragonwings.

 Father noticed the almost empty plate at the same time. “Look at this boy,” he said in exasperation. “He eat enough for four pigs.” He started to apologize to the demoness, but she only smiled prettily again.

“There’s only one real compliment for a cook, and that’s for her guests to eat everything up. You must take the rest of the cookies with you.”  She smoothed her apron over her lap and winked at me secretly.

“You too kind.”  Father spread his hands. “You make us ashame.” He kicked me gently under the table.

“Yes, ashame,” I piped up.

Dear Editor

I’m at that crucial juncture where I’ve got more than half a book done and I need serious input from my editor, except I can’t ask her. My experience has been that it’s a very bad idea to get the editor involved at a crucial juncture, no matter how much you might actually need her. Because the editor is the one who bought the book; s/he went to the editorial board and publisher and pitched the book you wrote, sold them on it, fought for the money, and presented the package to you (or better said, to your agent). So the editor has a vested interest in the book, and cannot be objective. It’s also just plain hard to send a half manuscript to somebody who has ventured their reputation on your ability to write the damn thing when you’re feeling fragile.

Here’s what the cover letter would look like:

Dear Editor:

Why did I ever think I could write this book? Better asked, why did you think I could? Because here I am more than half way through it and nothing seems right. The characters strike me as insipid and unbelievable, the plot sucks, and I can’t write a harmonious sentence to save my life. Obviously I’m done writing, forever.

PS thanks for the great advance.

Possible responses, as I imagine them:

Dear Writer: Crickey, you’re right. It is crap. I see no hope. Send back the advance, today. With 5% interest.

Dear Writer: This is the most beautifully written, funniest, most insightful and moving piece of fiction I’ve ever come across. It’s finished. Here’s a million dollar bonus and a first class plane ticket to come to Manhattan so we can celebrate.

Dear Writer: It needs more (sex/violence/insight/character development); now don’t bother me until you fix it.

Dear Writer: Stop whining and get back to work.

None of this is what I want to hear, really. There’s no editor in the world who can tell me what I need to hear, which is something along these lines:

Dear Writer: Breathe deep. You’ve done this before. You’ve done this many times before. You can do it again. I’m not going to read what you sent because you’re not really ready for me to read it, are you? I thought not. I have total faith in your ability to pull this off. What you need right now is a massage, and an afternoon with a good book and a box of chocolate. Tomorrow you’ll look at this manuscript and know what’s right and, if anything, what needs to be fixed. It will all happen. And if not, you have two advanced degrees and lots of other interests, right?

Towards the end there my inner demon editor got hold of the keyboard again, but that’s the general idea. In a nutshell: you’re alone when you write, and you have to live with it. Pardon me while I go try to gather my senses and see if we have any chocolate in the house.

digital historical fiction resources: history of medicine

headache?

I’ve finally started sorting through hundreds and hundreds of links to research resources I use in writing historicals. It occured to me that other people may find this stuff useful, so I’m going to post a selection of such resources by topic, on an irregular basis. Starting now with the history of medicine. Do you know when they first started using CPR? Might be important if you’re writing a novel based in, say, a war-time naval base on Hawaii. My rule of thumb: never assume that they did things then as they do them now.

These are not in any particular order, and I’ve included the “about us” information where I thought it might be useful.

Images From the History of the Public Health Service, Table of Contents

This exhibit is an online version of Images from the History of the Public Health Service; A Photographic Exhibit by Ramunas Kondratas, Ph.D. printed in 1994 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Public Health Service.

SPER: Home

The FDA Notices of Judgment Collection is a digital archive of the published notices judgment for products seized under authority of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. The NJs are resources in themselves but also lead users to the over 2,000 linear foot collection of evidence files used to prosecute each case. The evidence files are a rich documentary resource filled with legal correspondence, lab reports and data, photographs, and product labeling and containers. This digital library, created using the SPER system, allows for browsing the collection as well as searching the collection’s metadata and full-text.

Historical Anatomies on the Web: Browse Titles

Images have been selected from the following anatomical atlases in the National Library of Medicine’s collection. Each atlas is linked to a brief Author & Title Description, which offers an historical discussion of the work, its author, the artists, and the illustration technique. The Bibliographic Information link provides a bibliographical description of the atlas, so users will know which edition was scanned and if there are any characteristics special to the Library’s copy.

History of the Historical Collections | n m h m
Historical Collections division includes artifacts documenting the material culture of medicine, with an emphasis on military medicine and federal government medicine. The collection contains approximately 15,000 objects ranging in size from a suture needle to a two-ton Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) magnet. The earliest objects date from circa 1660 (Robert Hooke Microscope) to medical instruments and equipment presently in use. The collection continues to serve as a Department of Defense resource for the study of how technology influences the practice of medicine.

Turning The Pages Online: Book Menu

Using touchscreen technology and animation software, the digitized images of rare and beautiful historic books in the biomedical sciences are offered at kiosks at the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Visitors may ‘touch and turn’ these pages in a highly realistic way. They can zoom in on the pages for more detail, read or listen to explanations of the text, and (in some cases) access additional information on the books in the form of curators’ notes.

Now we offer Turning The Pages for the enjoyment of home users with an Internet connection. This Web version has been created via Macromedia Flash MX. Simply click the BOOKS button above and select the book you wish to view.

Cornell Medical Center Archives

Limited digital access, but lots of great historical overview information and images.

Medicine in the Americas

Medicine in the Americas is a digital library project providing scanned historical American medical books in pdf and as searchable text files. The project is aimed at the general public, with special emphasis on historians, students, clinicians, and librarians.

The project draws on the collections of the History of Medicine Division of The National Library of Medicine and includes works not only from the United States, but from all over the New World.

In order to produce the highest quality images, the pages of the books are scanned directly. Pdf files are offered for downloading, the texts are searchable, and direct links are provided from NLM’s online catalog, LocatorPlus.

The books are mounted on the NCBI Bookshelf, which makes their texts searchable.

Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection

The Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever On-line Collection is a compilation of several distinct manuscript collections housed in different libraries.  This extensive on-line archive comprises correspondence, notes, reports, printed materials, photographs, negatives, and artifacts spanning a period of almost one hundred years.  The core of the on-line archive is the Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection, a monumental array of items occupying seventy-two linear feet of shelf space and 147 boxes in the Department of Historical Collections and Services, The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.  Additional material from The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library includes selected items from the Henry Rose Carter Papers, the William Bennett Bean Papers, and the Wade Hampton Frost Papers.  The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library of the University of Virginia houses the important and equally extensive Jefferson Randolph Kean Papers, many of which are included here.  A small but significant deposit of Walter Reed’s letters are held at the Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. Finally, the many government documents reproduced here as photostats derive from originals in the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D. C.  The Hench Reed on-line archive presents a series of complex and interrelated stories, all linked to the U. S. Army Yellow Fever Commission’s demonstration in 1900 that the mosquito Aedes aegypti is the vector for the transmission of yellow fever. example newspaper clipping

Anatomia Collection – University of Toronto Libraries

This collection features approximately 4500 full page plates and other significant illustrations of human anatomy selected from the Jason A. Hannah and Academy of Medicine collections in the history of medicine at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto. Each illustration has been fully indexed using medical subject headings (MeSH), and techniques of illustration, artists, and engravers have been identified whenever possible. There are ninety-five individual titles represented, ranging in date from 1522 to 1867.

Images from the History of Medicine (IHM)

Images from the History of Medicine (IHM) provides access to nearly 70,000 images in the collections of the History of Medicine Division (HMD) of the U.S National Library of Medicine (NLM).

The collection includes portraits, photographs, caricatures, genre scenes, posters, and graphic art illustrating the social and historical aspects of medicine dated from the 15th to 21st century.

The records from the Images from the History of Medicine database are also searchable in LocatorPlus.

History of Medicine Home Pageall exhibitions and digital projects by date

NLM historical collections of material related to health and disease are among the richest in the world.  Holdings include pre-1914 books, pre-1871 journals, archives and modern manuscripts, medieval and Islamic manuscripts, a collection of printed books, manuscripts, and visual material in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean; historical prints, photographs, films, and videos; pamphlets, dissertations, theses, college catalogs, and government documents.  The collection is constantly growing, with new material added through an active Acquisitions Program of purchase and donation.

Contagion: Historical views of dieases

This online collection offers important historical perspectives on the science and public policy of epidemiology today and contributes to the understanding of the global, social–history, and public–policy implications of diseases.

Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics is a digital library collection that brings a unique set of resources from Harvard’s libraries to Internet users everywhere. Offering valuable insights to students of the history of medicine and to researchers seeking an historical context for current epidemiology, the collection contributes to the understanding of the global, social–history, and public–policy implications of disease. Contagion is also a unique social–history resource for students of many ages and disciplines.  See especially the section on domestic medicine.